Available from Boydell and Brewer
|1388 (Feb.)||Thomas Cuttyng|
|1388 (Sept.)||Adam Daubeney|
|John Hulle I|
|1390 (Jan.)||Thomas Cuttyng|
|1393||John Cole I|
|John Cole I|
|1397 (Jan.)||John Hardy|
|1397 (Sept.)||John Hardy|
|1406||Robert Frye II|
|1407||Robert Frye II|
|1410||Robert Frye II|
|John Harleston 1|
|1411||Robert Frye II|
|John Harleston 2|
|1413 (May)||Robert Frye II|
|1414 (Apr.)||John Valeys|
|1414 (Nov.)||John Harleston|
|1421 (May)||John Harleston|
|1421 (Dec.)||John Harleston|
Wilton is situated in south Wiltshire, in a fertile triangle of land near the confluence of the rivers Nadder and Wylye. A local route centre, it also stood on the main road from London to Exeter. During the period under construction it was the second largest of the Wiltshire boroughs, its taxable population of 639 in 1377 being considerably greater than that of Marlborough or Malmesbury and more than twice that of Devizes or Chippenham. Wilton itself, however, was quite overshadowed by the city of Salisbury, only three miles away and five times as large.3
It was, in fact, the proximity of Salisbury which brought about the decline in Wilton’s status and prosperity which is the most marked feature of its medieval history. Founded in about 550, it was for a time the capital of the kingdom of Wessex, and even after the Norman Conquest it remained ‘the hedde town of Wilteschir’, with 12 parish churches, an important nunnery, a mint, and three markets a week. But it was burnt to the ground in 1145, and after it was rebuilt there were increasing signs of economic deterioration. This decline was greatly accelerated by the foundation in the early 13th century of Salisbury, which soon began to attract trade away from Wilton, and by the building in 1244 of Harnham bridge (just outside the city) which enabled road traffic from London and Salisbury to the west to bypass the older borough. In 1250 Wilton’s mint closed, and during the remainder of the century and throughout the next the town continued to decline, while Salisbury grew in prosperity and developed a thriving wool and cloth trade. Despite efforts by the Wilton burgesses to maintain their thrice-weekly markets, competition from those held at Salisbury on the same days was overwhelming; and such attempts as were made, both by the men of Wilton and (as lord of the borough) by the King, to suppress these rival markets proved unsuccessful, as were other efforts to revive the town’s prosperity.4 Though the cloth trade had never developed in Wilton to the same extent as it did in other south and west Wiltshire towns, some at least of the burgesses of our period were engaged in the manufacture and sale of this product. There is little record of what other occupations the inhabitants followed, although a guild of tailors is known to have existed in our period.5
By the beginning of the 15th century the borough was in a state of decay, with houses and bridges ruinous, market stalls neglected, and no more than three parish churches in use. The grant of an annual fair in 1414 (the duration of which was extended in the following year) did little to improve Wilton’s economic position, which continued to deteriorate, albeit more slowly than hitherto, during the remainder of the century. Nevertheless, throughout our period Wilton retained a relic of its former pre-eminence in that the county court still met there, even though the assizes and other itinerant royal courts had long since habitually convened at Salisbury.6
Already an important royal borough at the time of the Domesday survey, during the 12th and 13th centuries Wilton was awarded to a succession of members of the royal family. In 1336, however, Edward III granted it in tail-male to William Fitzwaryn†, in whose family it remained until 1414, when his direct descendant, Sir Ivo*, died leaving a daughter as his heir. The borough then passed to John, duke of Bedford, who held it until his death in 1435. During our period, at least, the lords of the town apparently had little direct concern with its internal administration, the rents that were due to them being collected by a reeve whose annual election lay with the burgesses.7 Even so, it should be noted that John Whithorne (a notable townsman and 11 times MP) was quite prominent in the service of the duke of Bedford, as receiver for his lands in the south-western counties.
By the early 12th century the burgesses were organized as a guild merchant, and Henry I issued a charter granting them all the liberties of toll, passage, and custom enjoyed by the citizens of London and Winchester. This charter was inspected and confirmed by successive monarchs, including Richard II and each of the Lancastrian kings in turn. The town jealously guarded its commercial privileges, and Wilton merchants sometimes carried with them on their travels documents reciting the charter, as proof of their exemption from tolls. By 1205 the burgesses were choosing their own reeves to collect the rents due to the King or other lord, and by 1288 they were electing their own coroners. They had the right to hold a court of their own, with power to arrest and punish offenders, the profits of jurisdiction going to the lord of the town.8 By the end of the 14th century the guild merchant had become, in fact if not in name, indistinguishable from the ‘community of the borough’. The qualification for admission had formerly been ownership of a burgage tenement, but whether that still applied in our period is unclear. The borough was now ruled by a mayor and a council of 12 senior burgesses, the former being elected annually by the whole community from two candidates put forward by the retiring mayor and the council.9 The election, accompanied by a feast, took place on the Thursday after Michaelmas,10 and on the same day were chosen a reeve, two coroners, four auditors, and the steward of the guild merchant, the latter, since he was responsible for the town’s finances, being held next in esteem to the mayor. Three bailiffs, called the town bailiff, the mayor’s bailiff and the King’s bailiff, were also appointed every year. The duties of the first two are uncertain, but the King’s bailiff was the one empowered to respond to royal writs concerning the borough, and he consequently acted as returning officer at parliamentary elections. The one permanent official was the town clerk, who was paid a stipend of 6s.8d. yearly (whereas the mayor received only 1s.6d.).11
During our period no disputes are known to have occurred between the borough and external authorities. From time to time presents of wine were sent to the lord of the town, the mayor of Salisbury, visiting justices of assize, and also to notables (like Sir Walter Hungerford*) staying at Wilton abbey. At least on one occasion, in 1413, food and drink was provided for those attending the county court then being held in the town for the election of the knights of the shire.12 The complete lack of indentures or other memoranda specially relating to the borough’s own elections to Parliament at this time, makes it virtually impossible to determine whether any internal or external influences were brought to bear on such procedures. There is no evidence of intervention on the part of the lords of the town. Admittedly, John Whithorne, who became receiver of the duke of Bedford’s estates in Wiltshire, Hampshire, Somerset and Dorset, monopolized one of the Wilton seats for much of Henry V’s reign, but his appointment as receiver most probably post-dated his first election to Parliament, and in any case he resembled the majority of the Members chosen during our period in being a resident burgess of the town. Robert Frye II, the clerk of the royal council, would seem to have been returned more on his merits as a valuable intermediary with Westminster than as the protégé or nominee of the King or any lord, and details of his correspondence with townsmen of Wilton strongly suggest that he came from the locality and was well known there.
Wilton had first sent burgesses to the Parliament of 1275. Again required to make a return in 1295, it was thereafter represented more or less without interruption, the names of Members actually surviving for five out of every six of the Parliaments held between 1298 and 1386. Electoral practice at Wilton would appear to have been much the same as obtained in other Wiltshire boroughs. The elections took place in the borough court, and it is possible that (as in the later 15th century) the franchise was restricted to the mayor, his 12 councillors, and the other local officials.13 No more than 22 returns for Wilton survive for the 32 Parliaments of the period, but as the names of those who sat in 1410 and 1411 are furnished by the accounts of the steward of the guild, gaps remain for only eight. The number of individuals thus recorded as MPs is 15, of whom six are not known to have sat more than once. But the majority clearly achieved some worthwhile experience of the ways of the Commons: John Hardy was elected four times, Adam Daubeney and Robert Frye II five each (and Frye also represented Shaftesbury, in 1406 and 1417), Henry Bont seven, John Cole I and Thomas Cuttyng eight each, and William Chitterne nine. The most outstanding in this respect were John Harleston and John Whithorne, each of whom was chosen by Wilton II times. Moreover, the two of them sat together in every Parliament between 1414 (Nov.) and 1423 for which returns survive, on each occasion representing this borough, save that in 1422 Harleston appeared for Old Sarum, while Whithorne was elected for Wilton, as usual.
With such a large number of experienced Members, it is not surprising that, on 14 out of a possible 24 occasions both burgesses were men who had served in the Commons previously, while in the remaining ten instances when a newcomer was elected he was always accompanied by someone who had been tried before. At no time between 1386 and 1421 were two novices returned together. By the same token re-election was relatively common, occurring in 1386 (with Adam Daubeney), 1394 (John Cole), 1395 (Thomas Cuttyng), twice in 1397 (John Hardy), 1407 and 1410 (Robert Frye II), 1411 (both Frye and John Harleston), and in 1414 (Nov.), 1415, 1419, 1420, and twice in 1421 (both Harleston and Whithorne). It is plain, therefore, that during the period under consideration Wilton was represented by a comparatively small number of individuals, several of whom could boast considerable experience of the workings of the Lower House.
The parliamentary representation of Wilton does not appear to have usually run in the same families. However, John Hulle I was possibly a relative of William Hulle (MP between 1351 and 1365), and John Whithorne may well have been the father of Richard, who was to sit in 1435 and 1439. Of the 15 Wilton Members of our period, 12 were certainly resident in the borough, even though one of these, Whithorne, had originally come from the Isle of Wight. The only ‘outsiders’ (if they may so be called) were John Lambarde, who lived no more than five miles away, and Robert Frye, the clerk of the Council. Frye’s duties doubtless kept him busy at Westminster for most of the time, but he owned property in Wilton and may even have been born in the locality. The general paucity of Wilton records for this period makes it difficult to discover who among its parliamentary burgesses held office in the borough, though as members of a small ‘closed’ corporation it is likely that at least some of them did so at one time or another. John Harleston is known to have served as the steward of the guild merchant, and William Chitterne, John Hardy and John Whithorne were all made mayor. The last named, who occupied the mayoralty twice, was elected to two Parliaments during his first term of office (1420-1), but like all those recorded holding local office he only did so after proving his worth to the burgesses as their representative in the Commons. Comparatively little is known about the Members’ occupations. But Harleston was a merchant, and John Bottenham was perhaps a clothier. John Lambarde had evidently received training as a lawyer, and Whithorne clearly developed expertise in estate management. Robert Frye, for nearly 25 years clerk to the royal council under Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, was most unusual in that he had actually taken minor orders before he entered the House, and was, indeed, to end his days as vicar of Loughborough.
No fewer than nine of the 15 Members for Wilton served the Crown in one capacity or another outside the borough, most of them, however, in offices or on commissions relating to Wiltshire. Bottenham, Cole, Lambarde and Whithorne were all made county coroners, both Harleston and Cuttyng alnagers, and Whithorne escheator. Lambarde acted for three years as clerk to the j.p.s, and both he and Cuttyng appeared as verderers in the royal forest of Grovely. Cuttyng, Cole and Hardy were all appointed to collect taxes in the shire at large, and the first two also sat on royal commissions of inquiry relating to matters of local interest. But, without exception, none of these sometime officials came to the government’s notice until after first sitting in Parliament. By contrast, Robert Frye had been in the King’s service for nearly 20 years before he ever sought election.
Comparatively few of the Wilton burgesses are known to have held land outside the town or its surrounding villages. Lambarde, Cuttyng and Frye, however, all acquired property elsewhere in south Wiltshire, and Whithorne possessed no less than 60 messuages and 636 acres of land in those parts. Outside Wiltshire, Frye owned several tenements at Shaftesbury in Dorset, and Cuttyng had unspecified holdings in the same county.
During our period, then, Wilton was almost exclusively represented in Parliament by its own resident burgesses, and to a certain extent this tendency to return local men rather than outsiders continued into the reign of Henry VI: three out of every four of those elected between 1422 and 1440 are known to have lived in the town.14
Author: Charles Kightly
- 1. Wilton Corporation, guild steward